WARNING: FULL SPOILERS
James Delaney (Tom Hardy) has been nearly invincible in Taboo. The few setbacks he has suffered were either part of his plan or quickly resolved. But “Episode Six” seems to be the beginning of the end for Delaney as the East India Company and Sir Strange (Jonathan Pryce) finally got an advantage.
At first, it didn’t seem that way. The official inquiry into the sinking of the slave ship led by George Chischester (Louis Msamati) reveals Strange’s connection to the incident: His brother. Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) finally rids herself of Thorne (Jefferson Hall) with a needle to the blowhard’s stomach and runs to James. In the meantime, Delaney and Cholmondeley (Tom Hollander) successfully created the gunpowder for Dumbarton (Michael Kelly) and the Americans, securing the secrecy of his factory.
Or so it seems. Delaney’s mental state begins to fracture as Brace (David Hayman) reveals a dark secret: His mother tried to drown him as a baby. Flashes of his ghostly mother begin to haunt Delaney, causing him to violently lash out several times, even when having sex with his beloved Zilpha. Then Ibbotson (Christopher Fairbank), the farmer taking care of his son Robert, gives up the location of the gunpowder factory and the Company blows up his ship. As a result, a drunken and angry Delaney goes on an unfocused rampage, ending with the inadvertent death of young Winter.
“Episode Six” of Taboo is the best episode of what has been a sometimes brilliant debut season. While the past few episodes have been satisfying in their own ways, the show has been on autopilot, content to let Delaney confidently stomp his way through London. But this episode manages to blow all or our previous expectations away as the story launches forward like a shot from a cannon.
Fracturing the Mind
Mental breakdowns can lead to some great performances from gifted actors and this episode is no exception. Tom Hardy owns the screen as Delaney slowly loses his cool in the face of his major setbacks. The man has always been intimidating, but this maniac is even more dangerous when angry and unfocused. It’s great because we see the man desperately try to cling to that all knowing confidence we have come to know.
The fall from grace is oddly satisfying because of this. It feels as though we are watching the end of a man, both in sanity and well being. I have always believed that Taboo would have a bittersweet, tragic conclusion and it seems to be bearing out.
The portrayal of young Winter should also be singled out here. In many ways, her character is similar to Zilpha’s. Her ultimate fate makes her portrayal retroactively brilliant.
I remember believing that Winter was only a figment of Delaney’s imagination because of her ghostly qualities. Her voice was barely a whisper and she always entered scenes barely making a sound. There was always something eerie about her appearances.
All those times, her death was being foreshadowed. She eventually turned out to be a ghost, but in a different way. Her death will haunt Delaney for the rest of the show.
Delaney is not the only one losing his grip on reality. Oona Chaplin gives a haunting performance as the broken Zilpha. When Lorna (Jessie Buckley) comes to visit Zilpha in search of James, the look on Zilpha’s face is ghastly in a good way. She is a broken woman, but not in the way Thorne would like. Chaplin’s performance has been amazingly nuanced, relying less on showmanship and more on long run pay offs. Her final transformation is completely believable.
When Zilpha goes to Delaney, the scene is a nice turn around. The whole time, Delaney looks hesitant as Zilpha says she killed Thorne just like he told her to. It’s a nice turnabout of power. Taboo has always teased Delaney’s supposed supernatural powers…but in this scene, he is genuinely confused by Zilpha’s declarations. He finally has a chance to get a willing Zilpha and he doesn’t want it.
And here is a special shout out to Jefferson Hall as Thorne. He gave the character a smarmy quality that makes his final reckoning especially satisfying. He was a man we all loved to hate and his quick death and disappearance (He is literally thrown away by Dumbarton
Moving the Story
I have so been effusive of my praise for Delaney’s exploits that I completely missed something: The last two episodes have been somewhat stagnant plot wise. Delaney was content to get his monopoly at Nootka Sound and the revenge plot line seemingly disappeared. While the gun powder plot line was fun, its only worth while aspects were the demented Cholmondeley and Delaney’s interactions with Robert.
In this episode, there are some nice touches. Delaney seemingly cares little for his son’s fate. Cholmondeley and even Ibbotson dote on the boy more than his own father. But I believe Delaney keeps the boy at arm’s length because he doesn’t want to “infect” the boy with his madness. And though Hollander has only a little screen time, his mad chemist continues to be a fascinating character as he trains the men to create the deadly gun powder.
With George Chischester’s introduction, the mystery behind the sinking of the slave ship finally moves forward. In one fell swoop, we nearly get the whole story behind the fate of the Influence/Cornwalis. Strange’s connection is probably much more involved, but that revelation is possibly meant for the finale. Chischester just misses confronting Delaney and I look forward to that conversation.
I find it interesting that this important plot point involving a slave ship is only now giving us a black man in a central role. I believe Taboo does this on purpose as Chischester is an outsider in this world. It takes special circumstances to get him involved, no less than an order from the Prince Regent.
Lucian Msamati is commanding while on screen as Chischester, but it’s a very different confidence than Delaney’s. He takes pleasure in undercutting the East India Company cronies using their own methods, something that Delaney would probably frown on. It’s a smarter approach, making him less of a target. And his justifications are much more noble.
It’s a bit disappointing that Taboo introduces this new crusader so late in the game, but nothing is ever a coincidence. Could he be the unwitting savior to a downward spiraling Delaney? I would like to think so…though that may be wishful thinking considering how much I like the gruff outsider.
Winter’s death is a tragic end to the episode, even for the perpetually dark Taboo. Yet it feels entirely natural in this seedy world. Since we never actually see Delaney kill Winter, there could be some doubt as to his culpability, but that’s a cheat. Of course he kills Winter in a drunken rage he can’t remember. This is a bleak story and Delaney’s end is very near.
And it should be a hell of an end.
SCORE: 10 OUT OF 10
Taboo airs on FX in the United States every Tuesday at 10:00pm